Jayne and Sam in Malawi!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Pepani Makolo

Sorry folks! I need to begin with apologies. Firstly to everyone who has been emailing – thank you. It means a great deal to me to receive your good wishes and news. There are times when I feel a little lonely here and knowing that there are people back in the UK thinking about us and praying for us makes a big difference. I have been trying to answer your emails (I promise!), but my replies are being rejected - I don't know why exactly. However, for this reason, please use the following email address (rather than the site email facility) to contact me:


It is fair to say that at the moment, it is very difficult to reply to any emails due to the lack of internet access. However, as you will hear below, this problem should soon be sorted.

Apology Number 2 – I am sorry that it has been such a long time since our last blog. Please be assured that we are well. Unfortunately it is only possible to update the site in Lilongwe at the moment due to the poor quality of Internet provision here in Kasungu. Getting to Lilongwe is quite difficult and is also quite expensive; I have only just managed to get here. However, from next week, this should no longer be a problem; The Lighthouse is (almost) up and running! As you know, I had hoped that we could open our new Internet Café on 1st September, but unfortunately this didn’t happen. Work on the business took a lot longer than I had anticipated (did I happen to mention that things happen VERY slowly in Malawi!!!) and we have had a few setbacks along the way. However, we have managed to complete stage one of the work and are just finishing off stage two; we will open on Thursday 1st October. It will be quite a moment and the excitement is building.

Our plan for The Lighthouse is to deliver a service in Kasungu that is fast, friendly and efficient; in doing so, we will be offering people something quite unique. In thinking about how things generally work in Kasungu, the words ‘chaotic’ and 'crazy' spring to mind; quite honestly, there are days here when it is like being in the middle of a situation comedy - so bizarre are the events that unfold! For example, one day the previous tenant of the business unit turned up as it was being painted and demanded that all work stop; he claimed that we were trespassing on his premises! So we had no choice but to stop work and it could only begin again once the dispute had been resolved. Other craziness includes being accosted in the street by a Witch Doctor! He was fascinated by Sam and couldn’t take his eyes off of him; his subsequent chanting (the Witch Doctor’s, not Sam’s!) sounded suspiciously like a curse to me! Actually, it’s very easy for me to be flippant about such things, but Witchcraft is quite widespread in Malawi – although it is rarely talked about publicly. In fact, prior to JTW’s involvement with Dzuwa, the village was run by a Witch Doctor; he ruled and controlled the villagers through fear and was a very powerful man. JTW drove him out of the village and things moved forward from that point onwards.

As you can probably see, there are times here when you honestly don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Sam has also had his fair share of adventures; one particular day springs to mind. I needed to make an urgent phone call and a colleague of mine offered to take Sam; unfortunately, he wasn’t paying close attention to what he was doing. In fact, Sam took it upon himself to stick his head into a container that had been dumped nearby; when I retrieved him, his face was black. I had absolutely no idea what the substance was and although some of it came off, most of it remained. Memories of an ex-neighbour’s dog that had died as a result of eating something poisonous, immediately flooded my mind. I was sick with worry for the next few days but fortunately, Sam was fine. The black stain has worn off now, but it took quite a bit of time; he actually looked very, very comical. As soon as I knew he was ok, I was able to see the funny side of the situation; his new nickname for a time was Sam Smudge! Like I said, you simply don’t know whether to laugh or cry a lot of the time! In many ways, this dilemma sums up life here; days are full of strange happenings and are a mixture of extreme contrasts. I am coming to understand that life in Malawi is a bit like being on a rollercoaster – it is full of the most enormous highs and lows. There are times when you feel overwhelmed with what’s going on around you, when you are so overcome with dread and fear that you simply want to get off and return to the safety of your comfort zone. Yet equally, there are moments which are full of laughter and which take your breath away with sheer unadulterated joy. It’s certainly eventful and could never be called predictable or dull; as I said to you last time, you certainly know you’re alive here!

What I have also come to understand, is that since my arrival here, I have been exploring Malawi and Kasungu wearing rose tinted spectacles. As I get to know more about how things work, I realise that there is a very dark side to life here. This is one of the poorest places on the planet; unemployment is currently running at over 50% and there is no welfare system to support those who are out of work. There is undoubtedly money in Malawi as there is in Kasungu – otherwise there would be little point in opening up a business here – but the problem is that the money is in the hands of a very small percentage of the population. The gap dividing the ‘haves’ from the ‘have nots’ is gigantic here; as a result, life is extraordinarily hard for the majority of Malawians and the evidence of this fact is everywhere. It is the sheer scale of the problem and of the need that is so overwhelming, yet the people here have a remarkable spirit which somehow enables them to cope. This said though, the reality is that the desperate nature of some people’s lives, leads them into desperate behaviour. This was really brought home to me a few weeks ago when I was told that I need to have a watchman at my house. A watchman is the Malawian term for security guard; at first, I honestly thought I was having my leg pulled. However, it was made very clear to me that this is no laughing matter. To put it bluntly, my house’s location makes it a very attractive target – more so because I am the only one living here. The house is surrounded by a high wall and has formidable security bars on all the windows and the doors. Evidently though, these are not enough to deter some people; the constant power cuts just add to the problem. This knowledge certainly rattled me. There’s a great deal of truth to the expression ‘ignorance is bliss’ and I must admit that I was very jittery in the house following on from that conversation. However, Sam is a great burglar alarm and I now have a watchman in place; it is good to know that someone is outside – particularly at night time. Never in a million years did I expect to need a security guard though!

UPDATE - I am currently sitting in the Internet Cafe in Lilongwe so that I can post this 'blog' to the site. Twenty minutes ago I was robbed of my mobile phone! I was crossing the road and a man stepped in front of me to prevent me from moving - his partner grabbed my phone, but thankfully was unable to get my bag away from me. This is the second time I have been robbed and it is very, very upsetting. Desperate lives = desperate behaviour at times and the only consolation is that the phone was probably stolen to buy essential items such as food! I certainly hope so.

As work progresses at The Lighthouse – albeit very slowly – thoughts turn to the secondary school that we are aiming to build. The purpose of the business in Kasungu is to create a source of revenue that will support the work of Joy to the World; getting a school built for the youngsters in Dzuwa village is a priority. Since arriving in Malawi, I have been finding out a lot more about how the education system works and like most things here, the situation is grim. Primary education is free, but secondary education has to be paid for. Many families here are struggling to buy food and as a result, many children are unable to attend secondary school. The standard of provision differs widely and is often very low; I visited a school in Kasungu recently and was shocked at the accommodation and the resources available to staff and pupils. The classrooms were bare and there weren’t enough desks for all the pupils to sit. Text books were in short supply and were very tatty. It was all very depressing. Yet the young people here are desperate for an education, because it represents the chance of a better future. I met a group of youngsters whose school fees are currently being paid for by charitable donations; these youngsters walk 2 ½ hours each morning to get to school. They leave home at 5am (on an empty stomach – their families cannot afford to give them breakfast) to arrive at school for 7.30am – the time that school begins - when school finishes at 2pm, they face another 2 ½ hour walk back to their village. They have one meal in the day – that’s all. It is an extraordinary hardship that is difficult to imagine, but for these kids, education offers an opportunity to escape the poverty that currently blights their lives; without it they face a very bleak and uncertain future. It is something that is worth walking 5 hours a day for! When you hear stories like this (and believe me there are lots of them) it makes you feel very humble – it also makes you feel very angry and desperately, desperately sad. There are millions of children in Malawi who will never get the chance to go to secondary school – never get the chance to realise their potential or to better themselves. It’s a heartbreaking situation. Someone gave me some excellent advice recently though. He told me that the only way it is possible to work in Malawi is to keep focused on small goals; taking on board everything else that is going on around you simply doesn’t work – you just end up feeling totally overwhelmed and utterly demoralised by your inability to change things. Better to solve one small part of the problem – solve it and then move on to the next part! He was right of course. At the moment, our small part of the problem is Dzuwa village and I am trying to target all my energies towards turning The Lighthouse into a profitable business. Putting on the blinkers each day is extremely hard though.

Again, I am aware that this all sounds very negative! I want reiterate that for every negative thing that happens here, there are usually two positive ones to redress the balance and in this vein, here are a few of our ‘highs’

* Having my hair cut in a ramshackle hut (it honestly looked as if it was about to fall down) in the middle of Kasungu market. The lady at the salon had told me that she couldn’t cut my hair and had sent me to the barbers instead! To my relief, the barber (a very nice man called James) did a great job and charged me 65p! Brilliant!

* Coming across Know packet soup in one of the shops here in Kasungu; it has really helped my eating problems. It’s amazing how something so simple can come to mean so much! Plus, I have found some great biscuits in the supermarket for Sam. They are cheap and cheerful but Sam loves them; they are a treat for him when he as been a good boy!

* Discovering that there is a library in Kasungu – I only came across it a couple of days ago – it is a stone’s throw from The Lighthouse! It is very basic and like most things in Malawi, you have to pay to use the service; I am incredibly thankful that I am in a position where I can afford the fee. Despite its limitations, the knowledge that I have access to a library has given me a tremendous boost.

* Meeting happy, smiling children wherever we go. These kids are so poor - they have virtually nothing and their clothes are ragged and dirty - yet they are always laughing and when you look into their eyes, they shine with joy. The youngsters of Malawi are truly inspirational and help to put everything else into perspective.

* Finally managing to sort out my Visa and Work Permit situation! JTW applied for this documentation months ago and it has only just been issued! I can’t tell you what a relief it is to have this piece of paper; at one point the Immigration Department was telling me that I might have to leave the country!

As you can see, there is much to be grateful for; on the subject of positive experiences, I would like to share a story with you. This is something that happened a few weeks ago and it has stayed with me ever since - I think because it contextualises really well so much of what happens here in Malawi. It actually took place in Church; a neighbour of mine (a lovely man called Peter) was introduced in the middle of the service - he announced to us that he was going to sing a song – his way of praising and worshipping God. The church was absolutely packed and not unreasonably, I was expecting him to have a really good voice – after all, why on earth would you put yourself centre stage in front of 300+ people unless you can actually sing? To my complete horror, it turned out that his voice was terrible – he was totally tone deaf. Plus, there was nothing subtle about his performance – it was ‘energetic’ to say the least! I was absolutely mortified; suddenly it was like watching one of those excruciating auditions that you see on talent shows like the X Factor - the ones of the people who don’t make it though to the next round! You know how it goes. Scene one – Joe Public enters the audition room and announces to Simon Cowell and company that he is going to sing a song. Scene two – Joe Public begins his rendition and subsequently murders said song with his shockingly bad voice. Scene three – there is much eye rolling, sniggering and general contempt from the panel. Scene four – Joe Public is stopped in his tracks, is told that his voice is appalling and that he will never be a singer in a million years and then ordered out of the audition room. In other words, he isn’t good enough and has no right to be there.

As I sat in church, I had witnessed scenes one and two and was waiting for scene three to enact itself. To my astonishment (and huge, huge relief), it didn’t. As I looked around the church, everybody else was loving Peter’s singing; I couldn’t see a single person who showed any sign of displeasure. In fact, I’m quite sure that I was the only person in church who thought something was amiss. This wasn’t an example of people being polite. Rather, it was simply a case of people respecting and responding to Peter’s motivation and the sincerity of his performance; the quality of his voice wasn’t actually relevant. What mattered, was what was happening on the inside – not on the outside. And generally speaking, that’s how it is here. The superficial things – the clothes people wear, the bicycle someone rides (few Malawians in Kasungu can afford to drive a car), material possessions etc – these superficial things are not the things that count here. The measure of a person isn’t decided upon by such things. Rather, it is the person themselves that matters. In other words, it is exactly as it should be and it really does make the most wonderful difference - it is totally liberating! There are many, many times when I’m out and about in town and I look absolutely terrible – my clothes are scruffy and dirty because washing facilities are so limited and I myself am filthy as a result of the dust (the dust in Malawi is relentless and merciless – you get covered in it whenever you go out; when I shower at the end of each day, the water is black!) Yet my frequently shambolic appearance makes no difference to the way in which people treat me – they see past all of that. As I sat in church watching Peter, the penny dropped and I suddenly understood what was going on around me; that realisation swept over me and I actually found myself in tears - it really was a very moving thing.

When I next write, I hope that I will be able to report that business at The Lighthouse is going well. Here’s hoping!

Sam and I send you all our love and best wishes; you are in our thoughts and prayers – please, please keep us all in yours. Thank you.